Which is an eminently sensible thing to consider. I mean, I do think there was an element of ridiculous scaremongering in the interview that pissed me off, but even if you’re not patently doing Evil ScienceTM, a reasonable experimental protocol might still, at the least, involve withholding your intervention from some of the people you’re usually trying to help. Isn’t this something charities should be averse to, given that it’s exactly the opposite of their entire mission statement?
Yeah, I still don’t really buy it.
Having reservations about standing idly by while people suffer who you could be helping, I get. But sometimes the question of whether what you’re doing is even helpful at all is still at issue, and it’s your responsibility to help resolve it. Until there’s data definitively showing that withdrawing your intervention actually would be harmful, any claim that you can’t possibly make room amid your important work to gather data on its effectiveness seems pretty flimsy. Not least because any finitely resourced charity (i.e. all of them) is going to be constantly presented with a glut of people it doesn’t have the capacity to help anyway.
Especially when you consider the potentially limitless benefits that could accrue from improving your performance indefinitely into the future. If it turns out that a different way of allocating your resources is, say, 20% more efficient at solving the problem than what you’re currently doing, you’d be doing a much greater disservice to the people you’re trying to help by refusing to take the time to analyse your own processes and find this out. This is why anyone ever bothers to do scientific trials, rather than just charging ahead and doing stuff, at all.
Again, the homeopathy comparison is apt. Alternative medicine practitioners often claim that they don’t have time to take part in clinical trials or publish an analysis of their methods in any reputable scientific journals, because they’re too busy just treating people. But if you haven’t done the science, nobody knows if that latter part is true. It could be that you’re actually just distracting your patients from legitimate medical treatment with your worthless placebos. If you did take the time to do the experiments, then rather than callously refusing help to people who need it for the sake of some abstract notions of “science” or “experimentation”, you’d really be vastly improving the help you can give people in the future.
You don’t even need to totally neglect 50% of the individuals under your care in order to run a proper experiment. If there’s an established alternative protocol, maybe one which already has some evidence behind it, then you can do a comparison with that, rather than with a complete lack of intervention. New medical treatments are often tested against the best thing we can currently offer, rather than against no intervention at all. I didn’t really emphasise that point in my video, but an experiment could involve the two charity approaches going head to head, with simply a more systematic approach to examining who’s being helped, and how much, by each technique.
But judging by the one unscientific, reality-detached attitude on display in this infuriating interview, even that didn’t seem to be on the table. It’s a conversation worth having in a lot more detail, and with sympathy to the kind of squeamishness Jules is describing. But the tragically science-phobic approach I’d meant to aim my ranting at is utterly undeserving of a place in the debate.
It’s not always necessary or helpful to “do more science”. Good science can be expensive and time-consuming, and there often comes a point where it makes sense to say that the jury’s in, and any further testing of our ideas really would be a distraction. But charitable services are one area where there’s still a lot of work to be done.
(Incidentally, Brook do sexual health advice and resources and are definitely good folks, you should check them out.)